In junior high, a teacher kicked a friend of mine out of study hall and sent him to the principal’s office for reading a paperback novel. In those days, good books were hardbound; bad ones were the paperbacks. The term paperback was a synonym for trash—something unsavory, off-color, or worse. They were typically sold from circular racks set to one side of the regular magazine rack in the local drug store. A location for the untrustworthy apparently. Bookstores sold books—hardbound books.
The book my friend was reading, however, was Ernest K. Gann’s “The High and the Mighty.” It had been made into a successful movie staring John Wayne and Robert Stack. It received several Oscar nominations and won for best musical score. The 1954 film has been credited, however, as becoming a template for all the disaster films that followed. The plot (per Wikipedia):
In Honolulu, TOPAC airliner 420 prepares to take off for San Francisco with 16 passengers and a crew of 5. Former captain Dan Roman, the flight’s veteran first officer known for his habit of whistling, is haunted by a takeoff crash in South America that killed his wife and son and left him with a permanent limp. 420’s captain, Sullivan, suffers from a secret fear of responsibility after logging thousands of hours looking after the lives of passengers and crew. Young second officer Hobie Wheeler and veteran navigator Lenny Wilby are contrasts in age and experience. Stewardess Spalding attends her passengers, each with varying personal problems, and befriends the terminally ill Frank Briscoe after being charmed by his pocket watch. A last minute arrival, businessman Humphrey Agnew, soon causes her misgivings by his strange behavior.
Reads like promo copy for a psychological thriller. It was. If you looked up Gann’s other titles you’d discover he wrote for adventure lovers, and you don’t have to read much of his work to realize that he was accomplished at delivering the goods. He penned a couple notable novels about the sea, but his primary focus was amongst the clouds, a topic for which he was eminently qualified by experience.
His stories were highly intriguing and readable, and it’s extremely unlikely that he would ever have thought of trying to corrupt young minds. Of course, Ms. Goeldner—our paperback-scouring study hall monitor—would not have been caught dead reading a paperback novel, let alone sitting next to one. Her mind was a steel trap. Unfortunately it had rusted shut.
In those days, paperbacks served as a sort of litmus test—they were trash and if you read them, you were . . . well, you get the connection. As one of our protectors of ignorance, Ms. Goeldner also had the uncanny ability to take a perfectly good novel and render it into something akin to a bowl of sawdust. I’m sure she had no evil intent, but acted out of concern for the preservation of the purity of our minds. That was a prime directive of the times—along with uncovering any evidence of infiltration by Communists . . . really! In those days, you didn’t go to a teacher’s college to learn how to think but how to teach. They were two distinctly separate activities. It was 1963, and many teachers prided themselves in their responsibility to inject sameness across the land.
After fifty-three years, we still suffer from the efforts of the insufferably ill-informed and intellectually ill-equipped to tell us what we should and should not read. People concerned about their own self-improvement usually don’t have the time to be concerned about others. But there have always been elements of society that feel they have cornered the market on truth and are obliged to become evangelists of it.
Of course, the control of young minds has historically been crucial to maintaining the “integrity” of the state—note Athens and Sparta and Hitler’s efforts. The early city-states kept undesirable people and thoughts at bay by using walls and guards. In the electronic world, physical borders have been rendered irrelevant. Ideas flow pretty much unimpeded. We truly have reached that point where we can no longer tell or guide the younger generation through what they can and cannot see or read. As an alternative, we too often try to propagandize their thinking and preferences by trying to control their attitudes and opinions. The wiser among us seek instead to empower them by teaching them how to objectively select and assess content on their own. You know? Think!
When you run across someone or a group that seeks to limit the literary content to which some other group is exposed, likely you’re dealing with one of two basic types of content monitors (“content monitor” sounds less offensive than “censors”): One seeks to control the availability of content—what is available to read; the other seeks to deny access to it. The result is the same—censorship.
Does this mean all censorship is bad? Few would argue for complete access to all content by all age groups. Some stuff requires a bit of accumulated knowledge and experience, i.e., maturity. But when dealing with people who are certain they possess the holy writ of truth and/or correctness and feel entitled to control and dole it out—it comes down to censorship, which is another form of superiority complex.
Perhaps the litmus test of the underlying intention to control access to literary content is whether it serves your (the audience’s) best interests or their best interests. A true teacher passes on knowledge to make you a better thinker. When you encounter an effort to control how you think, you need to challenge the underlying reasons for the effort. If the effort to control access to or the content of information cannot withstand the force of that simple question—why—you have encountered censorship, plain and simple. Of course the outer coating of self-righteousness first must be pealed away to discover the true intents concealed beneath.
In the day when most content was hardcopy, control and censorship was relatively easy. You either kept the content away from the audience or the audience away from the content. In the world of electronic media, such physical efforts are rendered near useless. But that means teachers and writers, essayists, and editorialists should include in their content references to the authority on which they rely for positions taken and opinions distributed. It’s a risky business in the modern world to rely on assumptions or jump to conclusions either as the provider or recipient of content without some basic support. This places new demands on a writer to maintain the flow of the text and still provide necessary authoritative support for it.
When I was growing up, many teachers taught by pronouncement—statements not to be questioned. That doesn’t work so well anymore. The seeds of my interest in writing should have been obvious by my constant and consistent inquiries of “why” when I was a child. The tendency to question led to my becoming a journalist and a lawyer, and ultimately a teacher. I wanted to know the “how come” of everything my father did, then what others did. I wanted to know the reasons behind actions taken and statements made and directions given and the results. “Just do it,” were words that rarely worked with me.
That’s not an invitation to be obstreperous to all positions you present or encounter, but to be ever mindful of the power of the simple questions of “why” or “how come,” and to constantly ask them as you write.
When you encounter a level of resistance to these inquiries, become immediately suspicious that someone is trying to hide or conceal something. Not all secrets need to be disclosed, however, but the fundamentals do. There are Ms. Goeldners everywhere, and the worst ones reside within our own craniums. They seek to mute the tough questions and focused inquiries and self-assessments that make us better at what we do and how we do it as thinkers and writers. It is practiced by lazy thinkers, and lazy thinkers make for lazy writers.
We need to encourage all efforts to depose the Ms. Goeldners wherever and whenever we encounter them. That starts by never allowing yourself to take the Goeldner Approach—assuming you know the answer (the truth) without making the effort to determine the veracity of the underlying claims or pronouncements you encounter and/or use—whether you are writing fiction or history. It concludes with a commitment to constantly analyze and question in order to reach reasoned conclusions that can be presented and defended and even though they reside in fiction give off an aura of reliability. (When you write fiction, you are merely lying with a straight face!)
Two talents are import for a writer to develop and continually refine: That you know what questions to ask and when to ask them—of others and yourself. It doesn’t require you to do it, but that you know how to do it and when it’s appropriate to do it. It’s what keeps your literary ship afloat and headed in the right direction.
The worst kind of censorship is self-censorship, to hang back when what is called is to boldly go forward. As writers we have the ultimate tools of survival that our heroes and heroines rarely have—an eraser, which you find on your keyboard under “delete” and “backspace!” With those you can fearlessly explore the alleys and dark corners of your ideas because no matter what, you can eliminate the bad and keep the good stuff. The trick is knowing the difference.